Category Archives: Contextualization

Unconscious Contextualization

I’ve read a great many writers and bloggers complaining about the ills of contextualization. Their critique is often leveled at fellow-conservatives such as Tim Keller, whose approach to contextualization heavily shapes his powerful Manhattan ministry. These critiques often assume that contextualization is merely a code-word for shallow “emergent” seeker-sensitivity or watering down or changing the Gospel message itself. They assume that contextualization pushes out the sovereignty of God through human means of evangelism, and often try to argue for some sort of excluded middle where appeals can be made toward just following the Bible or adhering to a set of doctrinal confessions. These sorts of criticisms may, in some cases, be rightly responding to abuses of contextualization where cultural syncretism has occurred, but the well-meaning response seems to assume that Christians don’t need to give contextualization or effective cultural communication a second thought.

I don’t have time to address all of these concerns in this article (I do intend to address syncretism shortly). But I want to take a few paragraphs to write about the danger of the “Unconscious Contextualizer.” What I mean when I describe persons/ministries like this is that contextualization always happens. Some of us contextualize intentionally and others do it unconsciously (Keller uses the idea of active versus passive contextualization in his book Center Church). The basic fact is that we’re all beholden to a set of norms that stem from our culture that shape our message in one way shape or form. Let’s evaluate these two approaches, examine two test cases, and draw a conclusion.

The Contrast: The Conscious Contextualizer

A Conscious Contextualizer examines the worldview, cognitive processes, linguistic forms, behavioral patterns, social structures, media influence, and motivational resources of his surrounding culture and engages them missionally (Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally, 120). He or she asks: “How can I take the teachings of God’s Word and explain them in a way that is understandable and actionable for someone who perceives, thinks, expresses, acts, interacts, communicates, and decides in these ways?” This is intentional contextualization.

“Every American Christian worships in a contextualized church. As much as we like to think of our churches as “New Testament churches,” there actually are no New Testament churches in existence today. Our cultural context is dramatically different from the world of the New Testament, and as a result, any modern church would look bizarre and alien to a first-century Christian” (“Putting Contextualization in its Place” in IX Marks e-Journal, Jul-Aug 2009).

The Challenge: The Unconscious Contextualizer

An Unconscious Contextualizer is conditioned from their background toward a particular way of thinking, expressing, acting, interacting, communicating, and deciding. Sometimes this particular set of cultural elements coalesces with those of the community with which the believer is called to minister to. Take, for example, many farming communities in the Midwest of the USA. In many of these communities, cultural shifts have been minimal and substantial homogeneity exists between the generations that still remain on their farms and work the land. Those who shift to new ways of thinking and acting, for example, are usually in the process of moving outward to other areas of employment or are drawn towards city centers that have shaped their new ways of thinking and acting. Thus, the older or younger pastor of a rural church in this area may never have to consciously contextualize in order to communicate the Gospel to this congregation and still be understood and responded to.

The Unconscious Contextualizer shapes the Gospel to appeal to his worldview, to seem logical to his cognitive processes, to communicate in his language, to apply to his actions (or to make his actions normative for others), to interact with his context, to use his preferred mediums of communication, and to be decided on his terms. Let’s unpack this last one.

A Challenge for the Unconscious Contextualizer: How a Culture Decides

Some of us came to Christ through a single confrontation with the Gospel message at which point we simply accepted that truth by faith. Many modern evangelists see their experience with the truth-claims of the Gospel as normative for others. They press people for a decision, claiming that failure to do so at that instant is tantamount to rejection of the message. This sort of modernist appeal holds strength with a sort of binary approach (i.e., either accept or reject). While I don’t doubt that accepting or rejecting the faith is the ultimate outcome of someone’s confrontation with the Gospel, we may be driving people to polarizing positions rather than being willing to see God work through immediate means. In other words, when we tell people that the only possible response to the message is acceptance or rejection, a more deliberative thinker will be tempted to either make (1) a meaningless outward response to your plea or (2) to strongly reject the message, which may alienate them towards further Gospel appeals.

When Paul preached to cultures that valued deliberation, he kept presenting them with the Gospel message and allowing them time and ability to deliberate over the truth of Scripture. Christians often laud the Berean Jews who searched the Scriptures every day in order to determine whether the Gospel that Paul brought was accurate (Acts 17.11). But would we appreciate this sort of thoughtful interaction if we were in a similar situation? The Berean Jews came to the ultimate decision of faith after the immediate response of deliberation. You or I may not have had such an experience in our response to the Gospel. So an Unconscious Contextualizer may overlook this possibility when they present the Gospel message, simply driving an unnecessary wedge between their hearers and the truths of Scripture by perceiving the culture’s deliberative postponement of the decision as procrastination or outright rejection. A Conscious Contextualizer will work to understand how people around him make important decisions and will make appeals that will allow people to respond to the Gospel in a way that they would make other major life decisions.

Another Challenge for the Unconscious Contextualizer: The Culture’s Worldview

I remember witnessing to an Asian woman. I was 12 and I was doing the best I could to explain Jesus and the Gospel message to her. Surprisingly, she exclaimed, “I want to trust Jesus right now!” I was thrilled with this opportunity to lead her in prayer. Before she prayed, she asked if she should remove her shoes, because that’s how she prayed to her gods. “Sure,” I replied before leading her in a sinners prayer. In the end, I walked away thrilled to have a Gospel impact, and she walked away never to darken the doors of a church that I knew of. Her polytheistic worldview allowed her to adopt Jesus as just another god in her system. As a 12-year-old who was telling her about the Gospel, I had grown up in a Christian home that taught and assumed monotheism and the resulting implications of this belief. So I simply couldn’t imagine that this Vietnamese woman would simply add Jesus to the list of gods and move on with her life. I had, though with the best of intentions, unconsciously contextualized the Gospel to my worldview and failed to missionally contextualize to her own.

Think with me about some key Gospel assumptions, where we may be using language that our audience doesn’t grasp:

  • Sin: violation of God’s law
    • Eastern Religions: an abstract or an illusion
    • Western Secularist: a social construct
  • God: Three-persons in one essence, eternal, and infinite.
    • Eastern Religions: often one of many, limited in power and scope.
    • Western Secularist: a product of evolutionary conditioning, either non-existent or highly improbable (and, if probable, silently deistic).
  • Christian: a follower of Jesus Christ
    • Easterners: perhaps seen in light of colonial abuses, crusades, or modern American cultural ills or national invasions.
    • Westerners: someone who holds an inferior ethic that abuses women and homosexuals.
  • Resurrection: Jesus was identified as the Son of God by coming to life from the dead.
    • Easterners: attributed to magic, spirits, spells, witchcraft, or the gods. Not improbable and not necessarily considered to be unique (e.g., a Buddhist has lived and died numerous times before now).
    • Westerners: impossible and ruled out by scientific assumptions.

I’ve only used two extremely broad worldviews to illustrate the problem here. You may feel that you have explained the Gospel very clearly so that someone from your background will understand it, but your audience may walk away with some very different conclusions. In a case such as this, have you really communicated the Christian Gospel?

Conclusion:

Most of us don’t have an option when it comes to contextualization. Culture is shifting all around us and few of us live in isolated locales that allow us to simply preach the Gospel with our standard lenses. Hesselgrave writes:

“Contextualization, then, is not simply nice. It is necessary. Without it, God’s truth would never have broken out of the Hebrew community and into the larger world. Indeed, without it, God’s truth would have remained locked up in His heaven — never communicated to, and never inscripturated for, even His chosen people.” (Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally, 85)

As God incarnated into our world, and as Jewish missionaries contextualized into the Greco-Roman world, we must stop catering to ourselves through unconscious contextualization and begin the humbling work of consciously contextualizing the Scriptures to the shifting cultures around us (Phil. 2.5-8). If the church adopts a thoroughgoing approach of unconscious contextualization, our churches will turn insular — full of transfer growth from other churches and employing insider-speak that confuses outsiders. If the church adopts a conscious contextualization model, we’ll begin seeing churches that thoughtfully interact with the cultures around them in order to uniquely communicate the Gospel in an understandable and actionable manner. But this means putting down our own glasses and beginning to learn what the world looks like through their own lenses.

[To see the previous two articles on contextualization, click here.]

Why Should I Care About Contextualization?

There are plenty of academic topics that honestly aren’t worth much of your time. They aren’t valuable because they don’t affect your daily life; they won’t really impact your understanding of the core doctrines of the faith. So most of us can get by without thinking about these abstractions. But this issue of contextualization isn’t one of those issues. It’s central to a number of practical Christian life issues as well as your understanding of certain Christian doctrines. I’ll survey several of these areas below.

Evangelism

If you’re like me, evangelism is something that you want to grow in. You want to build more relationships with people who need Jesus; you want to share the impact that your Christian faith has had on your life. But you may not know how to explain that faith to someone else. Contextualization is a study in how to communicate with others that you may struggle to relate with. In contemporary American culture, although adoption rates of technology and adaptation rates for new trends are narrowing, the overall stratification of subcultures makes contextualization necessary for evangelism. Making the Gospel meaningful to other subcultures means that we need to humble ourselves and ask some preliminary questions that will help us communicate better with people in these cultures. In the upcoming articles, I’ll be sharing some essential contextualization questions that Christians can ask in order to understand the culture of the person they’re speaking with.

Contextualization says that we can reject the extremes of syncretistic assimilation, that the community never recognizes as truth, and non-communicative withdrawal, whereby the community never comes in contact with the truth. Ultimately salt isn’t salt if it doesn’t function as salt (losing its taste), and it doesn’t function as salt if it doesn’t end up placed on something else (in the world). Both proximity and potency are essential. Some of the most potent applications of contextualization come to bear on the way we enter into evangelistic dialogue with people in our community.

Discipleship

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28.19a)

Contextualization doesn’t stop once a person believes the Gospel. If you’re involved in Gospel proclamation or one-on-one discipleship, you’re tasked with the privilege of diving deep into the lives of others and getting to know how they think and what cultural roadblocks they have in their experience that keep them from applying the Gospel to their Christian lives. Every Christian is a part of a culture and sub-culture that shapes us in incalculable ways. So as we engage in the process of discipling others, we’ll need to continue this process of asking questions in order to understand where they’re coming from, and continuing to communicate the message in an understandable and actionable way.

“For disciple-making to be effective, it must be grounded in the appropriate context in which people live. It is the context that allows us to understand the needs and issues of the new believers. Only after these needs and issues are properly identified and understood, can we then begin to design a curriculum that will help people to follow Jesus faithfully in their context. In short, borrowing discipleship materials or approaches used in another context ought to be resisted. Instead, national leadership must be encouraged and empowered to design their own curricula and approaches to disciple the new believers.” (Minho Song, “Contextualization and Discipleship: Closing the Gap between Theory and Practice”, 5)

Ultimately, contextualized discipleship steers away from the clone-model of discipleship, but focuses, instead, on understanding what discipleship looks like in ones’ present context. It means that we have to invest the time in understanding the challenges and aids to discipleship in your target culture, and don’t be surprised if those challenges and aids are vastly different than your own.

Worship

Worship has two focuses. It faces upward “to God” and also faces outward toward “one another” (Col. 3.16). Contextualization influences how we worship in this latter facet. Contextualization in our worship means that we the “teaching” and “admonishing” that occurs in the context of worship must be contextualized in order to communicate. And this contextualization moves beyond ensuring that the worship just communicates to the Christians in the congregation; we also contextualize when we take into account unbelievers that may observe the worship of the church (1 Cor. 14.23). We want to be cognizant that our worship doesn’t obscure the Gospel, but, rather, clearly points to the entrusted message.

Christians who resist the idea of contextualization in worship tend to focus exclusively on the doxological  aspect of worship while leaving out the ecclesiological dimension of worship. As we take both of those dimensions into account, we’ll see that contextualization doesn’t mean simply keeping up with the “cool church” culture or simply trying to make people “comfortable” in the worship service of the church. It means that we need to make our worship understandable and meaningful for those who express it, rather than trying to replicate traditional or contemporary models that we’re familiar with.

“As is too often the case in missions, church planting resembles church franchising” (Keesee, Dispatches from the Front, 19)

Sometimes by considering what contextualization looks like in other nations and cultures, we can look more objectively (with less controversy) at its results and then draw applications to our own culture more effectively. It reminds us that the Gospel doesn’t just get contextualized when it enters the boundaries of a foreign country, but it is contextual when it enters our neighbor’s front yard. Even missiologists from staunchly conservative groups recognize this reality. So one example we could use to give us this international perspective on our own culture comes from believers in Japan. They’ve spent time writing a statement on worship in order to help them contextualize worship appropriately. And others have followed up by suggesting a number of Japanese characteristics that churches should integrate in order to contextualize to their culture.  If you get a moment to read how the Japanese churches are contextualizing, I would recommend that you take a few minutes to consider: (1) Are there biblical issues with the sorts of cultural elements that they are drawing into their corporate worship? (2)  What would it look like if my church in my city took a similar approach to our worship and the culture that surrounds it?

Interpretation of Scripture

The text of Scripture must be interpreted and applied if it is to be handled properly. Simply having the true message doesn’t help if we don’t connect that message to life. The work of interpretation is essentially an effort to understand the author’s meaning; this process often requires the work of decontextualization, where the interpreter strives to arrive at the overarching transcendent principles of the text. Then, in the process of application, the text is contextualized and connected to the ever-changing culture that surrounds us. Ultimately, the contextualized meaning must align with a faithful reading of the text.

“The adequacy of an attempted contextualisation must be measured by the degree to which it faithfully reflects the meaning of the biblical text” (Hesselgrave & Rommen, Contextualization, 201).

“The biblical teaching on culture and hermeneutics provides the basic elements for an approach to contextualization. Applying biblically mandated behavior in a new context involves interpretation and application…. Contextualization of biblical thought involves three major concerns…avoidance of syncretism…constructive engagement with the cultural world-view…calling for personal change” (Larkin, Culture and Biblical Hermeneutics, 319-321).

For a deep but accessible foray into this issue see articles 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 of “Where is Theological Continuity Found? Text or Context?”

Translation of Scripture

Translation is a process that requires more than just taking one word in the original language and matching it with the corresponding word in the target language. Sometimes translators opt for a strict formal equivalency, where the exact structure is maintained along denotative lines. But, at times, formal equivalency can undermine the connotative meaning of Scripture (whether in its context or in ours). Some interpreters use a more dynamic approach that connects thought-for-thought. In a sense, every translation is culturally and linguistically dynamic, but the degree to which the translation flexes toward meaning over form differentiates some versions from others. Contextualization touches on this issue by reminding us that, while form is important, we can’t ignore meaning. Translations that clearly and effectively communicate the meaning of the original text to the target audience in a way that those readers can understand and apply can be said to be contextualized translations. Some cultures demand a heavier hand of contextualization than others (e.g., cultures that don’t have sheep, but only pigs, or peoples who have never seen snow). But every translation is, in essence, a contextual document because it takes the language of particular cultures (Biblical Hebrew/Aramaic and Koine Greek) and transmits it with some degree of meaning into another culture’s language (e.g., modern English).

The Gospel

Ultimately, this whole issue of contextualization is, at its core, a Gospel issue. The Gospel is the “good news.” It is, at its heart, a message — communication. The Gospel is God’s speaking into the world. It started at creation, continued with the Patriarchs, expanded with the people of Israel, and culminated in the coming of Jesus. I love how John the Evangelist puts it; Jesus is “the Word of God.” Jesus is the message of the Father. And what did that message look like? Was Jesus look like an angel, an alien, a blinding light, or an American? No! Jesus took upon himself the form of a servant. He came as a Jew in a Jewish culture. He was born like a normal baby and developed like a an average human being. There was no special beauty or look that he had that drew attention to him. He spoke as one of their people to their people, but with great authority.

And this is the job of the contextual Christian. Sometimes, in a pursuit of speaking to people on their level, we syncretize and lose the authority of the Gospel. Other times, we avoid speaking to people on their level at all, and fail to communicate the Gospel in the manner in which we’ve received it. Jesus communicated and communicated with authority. Biblical contextualization seeks to maintain this Gospel tension of incarnational communication along with authoritative proclamation.

“Mission, in fact, begins with identification and communication with God made possible because He has identified and communicated with us. Apart from this vertical relationship resulting from His Incarnation and Self-disclosure, and the proper response of repentance and faith on our part, there can be no mission. Apart from that we may become philosophers and rhetoricians, but missionaries we are not. Missionary communication begins with a knowledge of God in Christ or it does not begin at all” (Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally, 90).

What is Contextualization?

Over the past two years, I’ve become convinced that one of the great issues that Christians need to wrestle with and understand often goes unmentioned in our churches, conferences, and seminaries. Most of the literature on this issue is thirty to forty years old, and the average seminarian will only take a course or two that touch on this topic. Fortunately, I was blessed to attend such a course at my seminary.

This single most memorable course of my seminary training was co-taught by indologist David Cashin and the late biblical theologian William Larkin. Throughout these lectures, Dr. Cashin would introduce aspects of ethnology to the class and Dr. Larkin would explain how the Bible informed our contextualization to each of these facets of culture. Given the unique approach to the course, it was little surprise to me when I heard that this specific course at my seminary had been recognized for its superior academic quality by a national board. I left the course with a practical understanding of how to do contextualization and a passion to understand the practice better.

So my goal is to produce a series of articles that will help to explain my passion for the subject in order that my readers might also gain a similar appreciation for the effort. I believe that this seemingly dry and academic term needs to be understood and appreciated not just by missionaries or pastors but also by church members who want to live their faith in their culture. Contextualization functions as the foundation for preparing Christians to live missionally in their cultures. So to that end, I invite you to join with me in this study.

So let’s begin with an initial question: What is Contextualization?

In order to answer this question, we need to consider the history and applications of the term, some definitions, and the operating assumptions that we’ll be using in the forthcoming articles.

Modern History

The term “contextualization” as we’ll be using it originated in the post-WWII missions boom. In the scramble to engage the world with the Gospel, men and women became concerned with what their message and efforts would include. So in this cultural milieu evangelicals and liberals ended up locking horns over this challenging term. Liberals saw contextualization as entering a culture, looking for ongoing “redemption” (usually defined in terms of socio-cultural changes through politics or revolution), and adapting the Gospel message to support these changes. On the other hand, evangelicals saw contextualization as a means for connecting the entire Gospel message, as spoken and lived by missionaries, with a culture, regardless of cultural confrontation or reception. In this sense, liberal contextualization was markedly existential, lacking absolutes and biblical authority, and evangelical contextualization is definitionally dogmatic, resting on the absolute authority of the Word of God. While liberal contextualization focuses on finding truth in syncretism and dialogue with other cultures, evangelical contextualization focuses on the Apostolic work of communicating truth into other cultures. For further discussion of these paradigms, see Hesselgrave and Rommen, Contextualization, 144-157 and Engle, “Contextualization in Missions: A Biblical and Theological Appraisal”, GTJ 4.1, 85-91.

Suggested Explanations and Definitions

Hesselgrave: “Contextualization…is needed to make the message meaningful, relevant, persuasive, and effective within the respondent culture” (Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally, 86).

Hesselgrave & Rommen: “[Contextualization is] the attempt to communicate the message of the person, works, Word, and will of God in a way that is faithful to God’s revelation…in the teachings of Scripture, and that is meaningful to respondents in their respective cultural and existential contexts.” (Contextualization, 200)

Hiebert: “Contextualization seeks to formulate and communicate universal truth (cognitive dimension), love (affective dimension), and holiness (moral dimension) revealed in Scripture in particular human contexts that are diverse and ever changing” (in Hesselgrave and Stetzer, Missionshift, 96)

Keller: “[Contextualization is] giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them.” (Center Church, 89)

Kraft: “Biblically, the contextualization of Christianity is not simply to be the passing on of a product that has been developed once for all in Europe or America. It is, rather, the imitating of the process that the early apostles went through….Christianity is not supposed to be like a tree that was nourished and grew in one society and then was transplanted to a new cultural environment, with leaves,  branches and fruit that mark it indelibly as a product of the sending society. The gospel is to be planted as a seed that will sprout within and be nourished be the rain and nutrients in the cultural soil of the receiving peoples. What sprouts from the true gospel seed may look like quite different above ground from the way it looked in the sending society, but beneath the ground at the worldview level, the the roots are to be the same and the life comes from the same source” (“Culture, Worldview and Contextualization” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 404).

Moreau: “Contextualization is the process whereby Christians adapt the forms, content and praxis of the Christian faith so as to communicate it to the minds and hearts of people with other cultural backgrounds” (Missiology, 325)

Peters: “Contextualization properly applied means to discover the legitimate implications of the gospel in a given situation. It goes deeper than application. Application I can make or need not make without doing injustice to the text. Implication is demanded by a proper exegesis of the text” (“Issues Confronting Evangelical Missions” in Evangelical Missions Tomorrow, 169).

SIM Position Paper: “[Contextualization is] meaningful and appropriate cross-cultural transmission of Biblical truth, which is faithful to its original intent and sensitive to the culture.”

Assumptions Moving Forward

When I use the term in the forthcoming articles, I’ll be dealing with dogmatic contextualization as defined and implemented by evangelicals based on the Apostolic example. As we’ll see, there is still a great deal of discussion on the application of contextualization amongst evangelicals (we’ll get to various models of contextualization at some point). A simple definition of the term for the following articles will be: cross-cultural communication of God’s truth in an understandable and actionable manner.


In Memory of Dr. William Larkin